The Reinvention of Literature

There's something seemingly scandalous, irreverent about Simon Meek's notion of "playing through" novels like Crime and Punishment or Wuthering Heights.

But in practice, Meek's work transforming the world's great literature into something experienced on a gaming console is more akin to performance art or theater than it is video games.

Meek seems to want to do for the video game generation what public broadcast television did for the television generation, adapting great works of literature into something that could expand the reach of a book.

What Meek and Scottish-based TernTV are creating to be experienced on computers, iPads and game consoles isn't video games, not really. The group is creating digital adaptations, works that put readers inside the scenes of a classic and asks them to experience the story from the inside out.

Meek, TernTV's head of digital and multi-platform content and executive producer on the project, says he's always had a "bit of a bee in my bonnet" about the evolution of the story from book to screen. But what bothers him aren't the television and movie adaptions of books. What bothers him are electronic books.

Meek says he doesn't like that electronic books still have people reading printed worlds on white pages that need to be turned. "Which doesn't make any sense in a digital world," he tells me. These electronic books are still too rooted in the form that gave them birth, the physical side of the media, he believes.

More bothersome to Meek is that electronic books aren't reaching out to new readers, rather they tap into a sub-set of the already reading audience.

That being said, Meek doesn't want to create something that competes with ebooks, his goal is far loftier: He wants to transform books into adaptations that change the way a reader experiences them and in so doing hopefully expand a book's reach.

While Meek wasn't able to discuss the details of their first work, a digital adaptation of 1915 spy novel The Thirty Nine Steps due out next spring, he was able to walk me through how an adaptation would work in general.

"Players enter the stories through the events that take place in that story, and at that point experience the story from the inside out."

"Players enter the stories through the events that take place in that story, and at that point experience the story from the inside out," he explains. "We place them in the world in which the story is set, and are using a combination of original art and games engine to create some truly stunning environments. Add to that audio design and original composition, and the world of the book is brought to life. On this stage, we then let the player progress through an array of media that is directly taken/reinterpreted from the book."

TernTV is working with theater companies to capture audio performances for this first digital adaptation and are using reproductions of objects that are placed in these settings to allow the player to be able to explore the story and the world in which it is set.

Sections of the book's original text will also be occasionally displayed on the screen "when words are best placed to tell the story," he said.

A key element to this form of adaptation is that unlike with most video game adaptations, you don't actually play as a character from the book. Instead you are an observer to what occurs inside the book's world. So unlike with most video games, this will be an interactive experience overtly robbed of its influence on what happens. Players are there to actively absorb the experience of the novel, but not change its outcome.

"You act more like a director in a multimedia re-enactment of the story, where imagination is still key to the retelling (that's a really important point)," Meek said. "You can't change the plot, although you can navigate the text in a different ways - following your instincts and discovering aspects of the story that appeal to you most."

Players experience the story by traveling between settings. The Thirty Nine Steps will have more then 250 such settings in its adaptation, about ten of which will be fully explorable.

Since Meek couldn't talk about the spy novel they are currently adapting, I asked him to explain one such setting for a book they're considering working on next, Wuthering Heights.

In one explorable scene in the Emily Bronte classic, players would find themselves in Cathy Linton's room.

"At this point they can see everything that is described in the book, filled out with all manner of objects that we know are in fitting for a room of that sorts," Meek said.

In the original work we read that the "whole furniture consisted of a chair, a clothes-press, and a large oak case, with squares cut out near the top resembling coach windows."

"I think the real shame with the notion of people not reading books is that the stories held within them may become lost."

Words pulled directly from the book float into view at the appropriate times, like "In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window," when the book's narrator, Lockwood, moves into the box bed.

Players would hear the wind outside, described in the book as howling.

"From there, the player gets to pick up the books (Myst style) from within the box bed room," Meek said. "In these books the player finds the text that is alluded to in the book."

In this case, that means viewers can expect to find "an excellent caricature of my friend Joseph, - rudely, yet powerfully sketched" and "faded hieroglyphics."

They would also come across this entry: "An awful Sunday, I wish my father were back again. Hindley is a detestable substitute - his conduct to Heathcliff is atrocious - H. and I are going to rebel - we took our initiatory step this evening.... "

Where a book leans on a reader's imagination to fill in the gaps between the words on a page, these digital adaptations will paint a complete picture. But, I asked Meek, does that mean that in experiencing the adaptation a witness won't feel the need to go and read the original text?

"We're not looking at digital adaptation as a way to replace the book, but certainly offer another way to consume the stories that are contained within books," Meek said. "It would be great if they inspired people to read the original text, or explore other texts by these authors. Interestingly, I think the real shame with the notion of people not reading books is that the stories held within them may become lost - this approach opens up the story to a wider audience (and potentially a new audience, which is something that the book publishers are desperate for)."

The choices left to players of this form of book wouldn't be about which path you take to get to the end, or how the work ends, but rather how it is experienced.

"There are elements of choice in the way the player can experience the story - whether they want to speed through or read around the edges," Meek said.

A typical digital adaptation of a 200 page book, Meek figures, will take four to six hours to experience.

Meek calls what he and the rest of the team are doing a labor of love and an exercise in "both accuracy and pure entertainment. "

"We are not turning the books into games, but rather we are turning the stories in these books into experiences on gaming platforms," Meek said. "The reason we're using gaming platforms is because of the amazing production standards that can be achieved, but also the notion of interaction and reach that they have. I love the idea of bringing Crime and Punishment to a wider audience by making its consumption more appealing to a modern audience, without having to rely on cinema's interpretation of these stories (which is often way off the mark)."

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